Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cut your grass and the rest will follow!

I recently saw this post on facebook from a Black man:

"Rant about black folks who want everything but refuse to do the basics for themselves: Earlier this week I commented on a local black radio discussion regarding attracting investment to central city prescription was to have residents demonstrate that they care about their neighborhood by cleaning up trash, plant grass if your lawn is bare, become proactive against elements that create opportunity for crime (i.e., monitor children who are just hanging out causing disruption, report crime to the police, turn on porch lights at night, etc)...people will invest in attractive neighborhoods, no business wants to locate to an area where folks don't show care...few want to invest in a business where residents aren't prone to calling police if there are break ins and thefts...the talk host poo pooed my solution to which I said then just let their neighborhood remain an armpit..I can't help black folks that refuse to help themselves...I certainly don't want those kind of black folks living around me"

As I read his post I just kept hearing EnVogue singing in my mind "Cut yo' grass! And the rest will follow!" It's hilarious to think that we are still talking about how Black people need to behave in order to get the same benefits that white people do, no matter how they act. White folk can ack'a fool but no one will ever tell them writ large to clean their yards, take down those Confederate flags, or discipline their bad kids because inherent in these biases, Black people are still seen as being in need of being controlled. Wether that control is internal or external doesn't matter. Just to keep the driven, wanton, lustful, Black masses, with their jiggly, big-bootied, neck swiveling, angry Sharkeshas from slapping a ho (unless its on reality TV); to the cherry lip-glossed Sapphires ensconced like queens on the throne on welfare; to the BBC mandigos, slangin' molly along with rap lyrics named Rasha'ad who got five baby mammas they don't take care of; and who cares if they don't 'cause they all going to prison were they belong anyway. America loves the affectation of Blackness until they have to wear the label itself then every mutha fucka wants a refund.

So here's what I said to him:

Many people (both Black and white) think the problem in poor Black, inner city areas is strewn garbage on the street and ill-behaved children. You like to blame disinvestment on people who don't clean their lawns or fit the way you think a "good Black person" should be. So why don't you use that same fervor to push business owners to build factories in cities anymore. For years, in the north especially, manufacturing jobs help lift many Black people out of poverty. Where are those jobs now? They have been sent oversees. Yet I don't see many conservatives demanding those jobs to come back. What I hear is a lot about deregulations and trickle-down economics. Unions used to help lift Black workers out of poverty. Black people were the driving force for unionization as a matter of fact. Yet union membership is actually lower now that it was BEFORE the FLSA was made into law 80 years ago. Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate, Scott Walker, prides himself on destroying unions. In the 1970s a man with a only a high school diploma could make a good living by working as a skilled-laborer on an assembly line, with good healthcare and benefits; now a man with just a high school diploma can only get a job working part-time at Micky Dees or Target for minimum wage and no benefits. If you're a single mom working 2 jobs (and remember even a woman receiving TANF has to work PT) the last thing you are going to think about is cutting the grass.

If you want the neighborhood to change you need to talk to the banks. Have them offer loans in these "trashy" neighborhoods to bring back a good housing base. Often times in these areas you describe as bad, a homeowner has to pay HIGHER interest rates than in a suburban community. So what this does is bring in slumlords who buy cheap housing for cash then rent them out. HOw about giving incentives to Black working families to move back into these areas. Many of these older neighborhoods had families at one time, but with Black flight, high interest loans, red-lining and the sheer cost of being poor many of these places have now been populated with low-income renters.

If you want these neighborhoods to change get rid of "broken windows" policing. Often we think of Black inner city neighborhoods as crime ridden when many aren't. When I lived in The Bronx, my zip code had a much lower crime rate that some of the city's more affluent neighborhoods, yet all my white friends (who had been mugged steps from their apartments) kept asking me why I lived in such an unsafe area. Stop-&-Frisk is another example of over-policing. Each year in New York City over 500,000 Black and Latino young men were stopped by cops for no reason. The overwhelming majority of them were found to have no warrants, guns, drugs, etc. If we had any other program with a 97% failure rate it would have been stopped immediately, yet this continued for over a decade because there was a perception that Black youth commit crimes all the time. Also over policing leads to the removal of millions of Black men from their communities. Right now if you are poor, white and use drugs and live in a rural trailer park you are 4 times less likely to be arrested for drug possession than a poor Black kid living in the inner city. Right now we have hundreds of thousands of Black men sitting in prison whose only crime was having a small amount of weed/ pot or crack on their person. Those men could be out in the community working, building homes, keeping up their lawns.

If you want the neighborhood to change give parents a reason to relocate to the area. Change the policy on schools (use vouchers, charters, fix the broken public schools, anything and everything to help get those kids on track). Telling somebody to plant flowers or sweep their sidewalk doesn't prevent their local schools from failing. Get rid of the school-to-prison pipeline. In a recent study it was found that in Wake Country, NC a Black elementary (yes grade-school) student was 11 times more likely to be arrested for an in-school infraction than their white counterparts. People are far less likely to go to college if they went to a school system that failed them from 1st through 12th grade. Failing schools produce failing adults.

If you want the neighborhood to change then force the city to put funds back into these places. We have starved our cities to death with tax cut after tax cut after tax cut that only end up benefiting the riches people in the community. We have been tricked by the GOP into thinking our tax cut, which may buy you a couple pairs of Jordans and a few extra pizza runs will help you. What these tax cuts do is keep more money in the pockets of the rich--who don't spend it, they just hoard it--while defunding much needed public services like buses, light-pole maintenance and the public defenders office.

So let's repeat: the prescription to bettering a neighborhood is not cutting grass or disciplining children, its creating good jobs that pay people well, keep them healthy, give them low interest loans and other incentives to buy in the neighborhood while providing their children a solid educational foundation at the same time keeping up the infrastructure. It may sound like a lot but we see this formula replicated all across America, in predominately white suburbs. We know it works there so let's apply it to inner city neighborhoods as well. But telling poor Black people that its their fault businesses won't employ them or banks won't give them money simply because they have raggedy houses with burned lawns or bad-assed loud children is not only condescending its a lie.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The season of the witch

 Her friend Chrysanthemum Applewhite, with her sultry lips and pale skin, had finally let her hair grow out. Solstice thought it looked pretty down but the green changeable taffeta evening gown the woman wore—with the double-straps and basket weave bodice was just too drab and austere for her tastes. Solstice wanted something daring. Something unforgettable. So she chose to have her personal seamstress run up the same dress Bette Davis wore earlier that year to the Oscars, altered to fit her own style of course. Bette’s dress was dark but Solstice wanted something more soulful. Hers was made of gold metallic tulle with an attention-grabbing collar of peacock feathers that ringed her face with a flourish. Her chocker of faceted chrysoprase was dramatic but it seemed subdued compared to the massive yellow sapphire cocktail ring she wore on her right hand. The same hand that held the glass of champagne she had just spilled on the man now holding her.

     Solstice was tallish for a woman with a light complexion. “Café con leche.” is what her Dominican suitor kept calling her. More Ethel Waters than Lena Horne with bright red hair that she hated and often described as—“an angry nappy bush”—was constantly at odds with a comb. She reigned over her New Year’s Eve party with the confidence of a tiger over its domain. An ecru impresario who plied her guests with expensive gin, hot jazz and an expansive showmanship snatched directly from Josephine Baker’s groundbreaking performance in “Un Vent de Follie” of the Folies Bergère. She saw the show that was eventually made into a movie starring Maurice Chevalier, Merle Oberon and Ann Sothern. She had met them all at its 1935 Paris premiere with Shaka Tiberius—oh how she missed his touch with those broad militaristic shoulders and generously large hands. That dark mahogany skin and his lush mouth that curled into a devilishly succulent smile when he felt horny or mischievous. Antonin Crissuki put on quite a show himself that night for Maurice and the girls at his notorious after café club Chambre du Sang, but she digressed, Latin men and champagne had that affect on her. The revelry seemed to come to a stop as if a red light was turned on; and she, just for a moment, savored her own greatness. The two-and-a-half thousand square foot ballroom sat on the top most floor of her doublewide Convent Avenue brownstone in Harlem. When you went to a “Solstice Macaffey Affair”—always in quotes, always italicized—you were guaranteed to have a wonderful time. A sitting Queen of Witches would have it no other way.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

We got 99 hate groups but Black Lives Matter ain't one


There it was. In big bold letters. Festooned across the top of newspapers and pamphlets; flyers and billboards. Postcards and mailers. The leader of the Negro movement was backed by communists. In a photograph Dr. Martin Luther King is highlighted, usually printed with a large black arrow with his name inside, sitting along with other "communist sympathizers" supposedly being trained. The photograph had been taken at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. An important incubator for anti-segregation activists that had a long storied history of fighting for racial justice and human rights. The Highlander, situated on rolling hills in the lush high country of Tennessee, had been pushing for unionization, women's rights and integration across of the South for decades. At its height of influence in the 1950s you couldn't throw a stone and not hit a future Civil rights icon; there was Rosa Parks talking strategy in 1955 before the bus boycotts, there was Pete Seerger, Charis Horton and Ralph Abernathy confabbing.  You had James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette working on SNCC's next move while singing "We Shall Overcome" to break the tension. The Highlander was closed by the state for "inciting public panic" in 1959. In a now famous standoff the county sheriff evacuated the center's building and padlocked the door. Myles Horton, the founder, stood by and watched as reporters flashed photographs. As the sheriff walked away Horton turned to the phalanx of media people and said defiantly "You can padlock a building but you can't padlock an idea."

The photgraph itself was innocuous. A lecture had been given at the Highlander but the words across the top were damming. It didn't matter if the origin of the picture had been planted by the Ku Klux Klan. The smear campaign had begun. Dr. Martin Luther King and his horde of communist backed minions were here to bring violence, unGodliness and white slavery to the United States. Many southern newspapers ran the picture and the accompanying story as a rallying cry for Southern whites to wake up. Rise up. To support and defend their Southern heritage at all costs.  Of course this was only a part of a large COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram)--which is a series of covert, and at times illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations. These schemes were often facilitated by media. With this backdrop in mind we should not find it shocking that Elisabeth Hasselbeck suggests the Black Lives Matter movement is a hate group. I'm surprised that this didn't come sooner.

The goals of Hoover's machinations were simple:

1. Create a negative public image for targeted groups (e.g. by surveilling activists, and releasing negative personal information to the public)
  • Think of how #BLM member Shaun King was "outed" a few weeks ago for not being Black
  • Think of how the 2 #BLM Black women who organized the strike on Bernie Sanders's Seattle rally were called out because one of them was a former Palin supporter and was labelled as a radical Christian.
  • They claim that civil rights organizations exacerbate race relations and cause violence as in the recent shooting of a Texas law enforcement officer, but are silent when two cops are gunned down execution-style in a Las Vegas pizza shop and covered with the Gadsden Flag (Don't Tread on Me) which has become the standard of the Tea Party.

2. Break down internal organization
  • Think about all those news pundits who keep saying nobody knows what the Black Lives Matter movement really is all about. Even though it has been stated time and time again, on Facebook, Twitter, their website, by members, by me. You just keep hearing this drumbeat of confusion and disorganization. Why aren't the journalist doing journalism instead of conjecture?  

3. Create dissension between groups
  • There's a rule of thumb used in Civil Rights. If the media can find one Black person to refute the claims of any Civil Rights organization, that organization is automatically discredited. We saw this after Dr. King was openly criticized by the Black elite after his blistering "Beyond Vietnam" speech where he excoriated President Johnson for his slow-pace on fair housing here in America while spending millions to send troops to die in Vietnam. They told Dr. King he was being ungrateful and petulant. A year before Dr. King died a poll was conducted that showed 53% of African-Americans viewed him unfavorably.
  • We see it now as FOX News parades out a string of "coons for coins" who are all too happy to denigrate Black civil rights leaders and organizations. These so-called "experts" are willing to make the most outlandish and incendiary claims which in turn vacates Hasselback, Doucy, Hannety, O'Reilly, Coulter and others part in race baiting. They can easily say "See this Black hates Obama; he doesn't think racism is real; Black people are lazy, dangerous and sad. And because we love our own magical Negro, Dr. Ben Carson, the other forty-five million of you must be wrong."  
There are other tools in the White Supremacy gadget box like restricting access to public resources,
restricting the ability to organize protests and restricting the ability of individuals to participate in group activities. All of these are done to dilute, distort, defame and deflect the organization and our attention away from the real matter at hand. To keep the narrative away from the systemic death, destruction and denigration of millions of American lives. So while Hasselback's comments are controversial and she will take some heat for it; the truth is her sentiments were scripted for her years ago by an angry, racist zealot sitting in a marble fortress fighting against the forward momentum of racial justice. From his heart of darkness he has created a still formidable matrix that uses misinformation and apathy to prop-up an untenable situation, one that we must not only confront but affirm that BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

White Noise Black Noise

I can't remember a more eventful week. Eight epochal days starting with a terrorist act so heinous; so unfounded, so unbelievably evil that the perpetrator became instantly infamous. A Name that Shall not be Named. A name to frighten children and evoke America's long standing history of killing Black people. Nine souls, martyrs, lambs to the slaughter, innocents. Surely in the future the question "Where were you when the Charleston 9 were killed?" shall join those other seminal questions about the Kennedy Assassination and the Challenger Disaster. As the blood ran on those ancient antebellum bricks of Charleston, calls soon came to remove the Confederate Battle flag. A symbol of white supremacy and black fear that had flown continuously somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse 150 years ago. Then the flags came down. Like detritus shook from the feet of the future. Like a snake shedding its skin. States and retailers alike had finally agreed that the Civil War was at last over.

But the tectonic plates were only getting started. A social justice tsunami generational in scale was on its way. Our President's signature healthcare reform law; originally derided as, but begrudgingly accepted as, Obamacare was vindicated by the Supreme Court. On the same day the Fair Housing Act was up held ensuring that the feds could go after racial discrimination in housing even when it its not intentional. We learned a new term: disparate impact. Then within 24-hours we were celebrating marriage for all. Now anyone of any gender can marry any one of any gender in any state in this country. It seemed the world was changing right in front of our eyes. A swirling kaleidoscope, tumbling forward, then backward. We were caught in a spinning combine. It was emotional and it was dizzying. It was exhausting.

I have often said the internet democratized us. Anybody with wifi and a laptop can now become a wisdom chamber, filled with eloquent punditry. Or so we think of ourselves as we write our thoughts in the comments section. Each of us a digital blowhard. Usually this noise is something I can pick through; like looking for strawberries on a hot summer day, the cicadas in the background singing. The buzzing of insects is like that of vox populi; it simmers in the back of my mind but it never really disturbs me. I'd read a blog that is to my liking and discard the duds. But with the social cataclysm that occurred in America in the last week the noise became too much. Pundits, professors, TV personalities, social bloggers, Facebook groups, cousins, that guy in the next chair at the barbershop all had varying opinions, each as passionate as the next. Some were spot on, some were convoluted. But the sheer volume of debate coalesced into a brain-shattering chop suey of words; a cacophony of think pieces, status updates, hashtags, comments, memes; epic battles of dim wits with heavy usage of animated gifs to prove their points. We have been buzzfed, Upworhtied, Briebarted and Huff Posted ad nauseam.  Everybody and when I say everybody I mean every-fucking-body had to weigh in on every-fucking-issue!

By the time President Obama finished eulogizing Rev. Clementa Pinkney, singing "Amazing Grace", the heavens opened up in an eruption of judgment and conjecture. Over the last nine days every word anybody has publically spoken on any of these subjects were dissected. Pulled about, gone over with a fine-toothed comb. President Obama went too far on race or he didn't go far enough. He was too soft, he wasn't soft enough. He was bombastic. He used his bully pulpit. He missed this opportunity. Then came the dissenters. Republican presidential candidates made hysterical pronouncements of doom over gays getting married. This was the final hour of man because jiggery pookery was used on something only God can concretize. People spewed invectives. We charged each other with willful ignorance. One screed after another after another. Social media was awash with liberal intellectual outrage. I felt like I had been dropped down into a pit of tigers or vipers. Hissing and growling their displeasure, ready to devour me at any grammatical or logical misstep. It was overwhelming. And this coming from a person who got a U (unsatisfactory) in behavior in the second grade because my teacher told me I liked to debate every word she said.

People have a right to their opinions. Everybody has a right to express them. But can we get off our soapboxes for just a few seconds. The racial/ gender/ sexual orientation carrousel will keep spinning. As the president said in his eulogy "We talk about race all the time." The problem is we don't do anything about it. So instead of writing a blog to let the world know how angry you are over injustice, how about writing a blog on how to cure it. Or better yet finish your latte, close your laptop and go boldly into the world and affect the change you have been complaining about. If the president or your congressman or your pastor or your transgendered-same-gender-loving-non-conformist-evangelical-Southern Pride-Sons-of-Confederate-Veterans-common law spouse ain't doing it the way you want it done then do it yourself.

In the words of Grace Lee Boggs, social activist,

"Rebellions tend to be negative, to denounce and expose the enemy without providing a positive vision of a new future...A revolution is not just for the purpose of correcting past injustices, a revolution involves a projection of man/woman into the future...It begins with projecting the notion of a more human human being, i.e. a human being who is more advanced in the specific qualities which only human beings have - creativity, consciousness and self-consciousness, a sense of political and social responsibility."

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Invisible Kid

I'm so glad that we are living in an age of video and social media. For years many  people rationalized or eschewed racial/ gender/ age/ orientation biases as being untrue or unfounded. We have seen over the last 16 months an onslaught of media evidence that can NO LONGER be ignored. There are biases in this country. Biases which are baked into the bedrock of our nation. Now that's not to say those biases make you a bad person because we all have them; but acting on those biases can lead to dire and even deadly consequences.

So as the story begins to unfold apparently a white teenager confronted a white adult over their racially denigrating remarks about some Black kids that had been invited to a high school graduation pool party in a Dallas suburb. Allegedly this argument between the teen and an adult escalated to the point a fist-fight between some kids broke out. Residents of the mostly white community who had already been calling to complain about the infiltration of Black kids alerted the police. ONE cruiser came out initially and tried to disburse the ever growing crowd to no success. The kids didn't leave. There was no distinction between race at this point. ALL the kids were unruly. The police officer called for back-up and the dispatcher sent eight (8) more units.

The next set of police arrive and start rounding up ONLY the Blacks kids. Making them lie face down on the ground, handcuffing them, chastising them for "running" away. Cursing at many of the kids who seem in the video to be upset, angry and frightened. One officer seemed to be the most aggressive; cursing, running around discombobulated, wrestling teenage boys the ground. There's a point he even yanks one bikini-clad young Black teenage girl to the ground by her braids then pulls a gun on her friends when they rush to her aid. Had it not been for two (2) other officers who grabbed him to deescalate the situation he may have fired his weapon on unarmed kids. He then returns to the young girl and knees her in the back to force her into handcuffs, all the while she screaming for her mother. Her crime? Having a attitude and speaking out like most teenagers.

I am so glad we now have images that can back up the stories that I (from my own dealings with police as a youth) and others have been telling for years. That this problem is systemic and not anecdotal. To be Black in America is to be constantly surveilled. Not because of your actions but because you present a perception of criminality and danger. Black people are constantly being told where we need to be, what we need to wear, how we need to act, what we need to say and how we need to say it unlike ANY ethnic group in this country. Instead of us as Americans addressing this very fact we love to point fingers and blame the other.

I have a prescription to help this country but most people will never use it. To confront the problems of race we have to admit we live in a society that is deeply flawed. That there is a holistic problem of discrimination that; no individual be they a successful Black man or a poor white man can escape. That there is racial disparity in every aspect of American life. Now we can pretend racism ended in 1968 or that everything was fine until President Obama brought it back. But we love to lie to ourselves in this country. The young white teenager who recorded the video remarked that he just stood by and watched as the police rounded up the Black kids and only handcuffed the one white teen. He said he was largely ignored. That's what we do with racism. It is the huge, invisible elephant in the room pressing us back against the walls.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bessie: A near Smith

When Queen Latifah's face rose on the darken screen--like Rigel, the giant blue star, on the horizon--I thought I was in for a lush, dreamy treat; a cinematic croquembouche following a meal of collard greens and fatback washed down with corn liquor. An illogical menu fit for one of America's most quixotic entertainers: Bessie Smith. Ms. Smith was a masterwork of contradiction, born into poverty before rising to the upper ranks of society through her sheer will alone; all the while giving no fucks. What I ended up with was a tepid, hesitant meal that was filling in form and function but ultimately unsatisfying.

The ingredients were all there; a project of love by Queen Latifah, HBO Films, Dee Rees, the phenomenal director whose feature film debut was the powerful character study of Black stud lesbianism "Pariah"; producers Lili and Richard Zanuck (yes those Zanucks) and Shakim Compere (Beauty Shop, Just Wright). That pedigree along with the life and legend of Bessie Smith should have been a five-star Zagat winner but the movie ended up being a routine night at Applebee's albeit with your best drunk girlfriends.

Born in 1894 in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie started singing early and by her eighteenth birthday was performing on the stage in a traveling troupe with her brother. After a short time under the wing of Blues singer Ma Rainey, Smith set out on her own and within a decade would become the biggest and highest paid Black entertainer of her time. Unlike modern performers, raised on social media and TMZ like Nikki Minaj or Rihana, Bessie Smith didn't seek out the spotlight and her often illicit, ill-temper and bawdy behavior put her at odds with early 20th Century sensibilities. She drank, smoked, fought and screwed anybody and anything she liked.

The greater part of the film takes place between her humble beginnings in 1912 through her career's decline and resurgence in the early 1930s. Following her life from sweeping inspiration to crashing despondence with a good line or two thrown in the middle. But it was that spectacular opening scene that sealed the deal for me. Full of ribald glamour. It was breathtaking  and cinematic but unfortunately the rest of the movie never lived up to that promise.

I must say Bessie was a good-looking movie. Oftentimes Hollywood throws Black actors under the bus with bad lighting and lens effects. Think of those horrible 80s high school yearbook pictures with those hideous blue backgrounds. Cinematographer Jeff Jur, production designer Clark Hunter, along with art director Drew Monahan did a spectacular job making the diverse cast look good. A special shout-out to costume designer Michael T. Boyd (Secretariat, Into the West). Some of the clothes were anachronistic but he did a fantastic job of dressing the actors. So often--as in movies/ television series like The Great Gatsby, Titanic and Downton Abbey--we see costume silhouettes designed for reed thin women. Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique ain't them. I was so glad he was not afraid to use both color and fit to give the main characters a real period feel. Some of the background costumes were out of step but the main cast looked casket sharp.

As casting goes I think Queen Latifah was a bit out of her depth in this role. She has the natural swagger to pull off Bessie Smith's more outrageous behavior but when it came to the movie's more rigorous scenes, like when her marriage was collapsing, I felt like she retreated into Khadijah James. In one scene where she had to confront her older sister Viola (Khandi Alexander) who had abused her as a child Latifah was so stiff I was hoping Ragine, Max and Sinclair would appear through the door singing "In a 90s kinda world..." just to give her some relief. Now that's not to say she turned in a bad performance because she didn't. There were some parts that were heartfelt and brave--going nude for almost a full minute. Mo'Nique was excellent playing Ma Rainey--but I must say it was Mo'Nique playing Mo'Nique the way she thought Mo'Nique would play Ma Rainey if you can understand that. Of all the actors I think Michael K. Williams, as her manager-husband-sparing partner Jack Gee, did the best with what had been written. His willfulness and violence were supposed to come across as dangerous and sexy, but the way the movie was edited he seemed to be a bit unhinged at times. I feel he was the story's strongest performer and constituted the Greek Chorus of the film. Even in the movie's more salacious moments of lesbian sex and gender bending (Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith would often dress in boy drag) it just didn't seem as shocking or groundbreaking as I'm sure it was in the early 1920s.  I would have liked for Dee Rees to pull something more subversive from her performers.

The script was a bit too routine for me. A movie about Bessie Smith deserved a teleplay that was frenetic like her life. Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois, Dee Rees with the story written by Horton Foote gave us something that was a bit too by the numbers for me. It had all the sizzle of a Lifetime movie. It hit all the points a biopic should hit, disadvantaged childhood, soaring talent, booze, sex and decline. There was a series of flashbacks to Ms. Smith's childhood which was supposed to inform us of abuse at the hands of her sister but it just seemed disconnected to the main story and could have been left on the editing floor. My suggestion would have been for the writers to sit down and watch a marathon of Snapped on True Crime TV at least that may have added some more vigor to the script.

The biggest miss for me was the music. Other than a few stage numbers the movie was basically devoid of Bessie Smith's songs. Instead we got a score written by Rachel Portman (Belle, Cider House Rules) that was just too romantic for me. It put a collar on the film and wouldn't let it move freely and was too manipulative for a movie about such a freewheeling woman. I would have preferred Bessie to punctuate Bessie.

Bessie was a solid film. Dare I say a good one. A movie I will probably watch many times in the future. But it was sorta like going to your Aunt Cora's house for Thanksgiving knowing she was going to cook her ass off only to find that Cora had let her sister Phyllis from Philadelphia--the one who thought kale and collards were interchangeable--prepare dinner. You had a good time but when you were on your way home you stopped by KFC.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Billie Holiday: the agony and ecstasy of Lady Day

The Baltimore Spring was upon us. Turmoil, frustration, beauty, chaos, racism, betrayal and addiction. A potent mix that lead the young people of B-more to rise up and burn the city. It was an ugly situation; with blood and death and anger and unyielding truths juxtaposed against righteous outrage. These same words could be used to describe Billie Holiday.

Billie was born into a nomadic family. Her mother was ejected from Baltimore when she was only 19 years old to be with a man she fell in love with whom was hated by her family. As these things inevitably go the man left her mother and young Billie alone Philadelphia. Her mother not being able to take care of her daughter let her stay with a half-sister in Baltimore for a time. So its fitting that as I thought about doing a blog about Billie I found her ties to the city we just saw erupt in fire more was than ironic; it was comme il faut.

Billie Holiday was the real deal. She was the antithesis of the unfiltered gla-MOUR of Lena Horne and the more lived-in older sister of the coquettish sweet sultriness of the ingenue Dorothy Dandrige. Contemporary artist like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Amy Winehouse sing in her footsteps with the pain and truth of the love-lorn and addicted. Billie lived her life open and for every one to see. She was often abused by men and drugs and like Baltimore she crumbled and faltered. She was made an example of and mistreated. But when you heard those tones in her voice you knew she knew about the things she was singing about.

Voices and souls like hers are fleeting. Shining beacons that flare bright and burnout young. At the early age of 17 she had her own night club gig at Club Covan in Harlem. Within a year she had recorded her first two records with Benny Goodman no less. "Riffin' the Scotch" became her first big hit. Soon she was introduced to Louis Armstrong and by 1935 she had a small role as a woman being abused by her lover in Duke Ellington's short Symphony "Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life". In her scene, she sang the song "Saddest Tale". A poetic situation that would be all too true.

But like Baltimore, there was more to her than the glamorous ruin we remember from Diana Ross's masterful performance in Lady Sings the Blues. She was alive in all senses of the word. She was no stranger to scandal and those close to her said she relished the drama. Her list of lovers was long and notorious from the actor Charles Laughton to the director Orson Welles to the actress Tallulah Bankhead, their public falling out became the stuff of legend; There were rumors of others like Lester Young, Greta Garbo and Carmen McCrae. She was married twice but cheated on both. She was an avid animal lover (though she wore fur and lots of it) and would take her dogs everywhere. Even when she was arrested on narcotics charges. She was both funny and infuriating. She was complicated.

But whatever you think of Lady Day or Lady Baltimore from the few images of her singing with her iconic gardenia or the glimpse of the now iconic burning pharmacy. The one thing that is true is that neither of their stories has fully been written.

The Legend, The Icon, The Lady Day
Billie Holiday

I don't see you!

Billie Holiday at 20

Ms. Holiday kept few things hidden in her life

Styling and profiling for your nerves

After her narcotics arrest in 1956 with
her favorite companion

On the stage at Carnegie Hall, 1947

Ms. Holiday is not feeling the detectives

Jamming in a session

A tale of 2 Billies. Billie Holiday and
William Faulkner

Buddy DeFranco, Red Norvo, Beryl Booker, Leonard Feather, Billie Holiday, Louis McKay, 1954

One last cigarette. A portrait by Dennis Stock, 1954.

Tempest in a turban, Duke Ellington, Ms. Holiday and critic, pianist and composer Leonard Feather

Billie and Ella, back together now

Riffin the Scotch

Cover Girl, 1949